Tell someone you’re going to Africa for an extended period of time and you’ll invariably be met with gasps of awe and concern. Awe because it sounds enviably romantic and adventuresome, and concern because it sounds troublingly risky and unusual. Why would you go to Africa when you could go to Europe and gape at ornate architecture and gorge on chocolate croissants? Why would you go to Africa when you could go to Koh Phangan and work on your tan and sip from coconuts? But mostly, when given the choice between a place characterized by relative security and one besieged by corruption, violence and political paralysis, why on earth would you choose the latter?
These are not easy questions to answer. Initially, I tried to assuage their fears (and my own) by seeking out success stories─ things that would shed some light on the Dark Continent, things that would make everyone sleep better. When people mentioned the genocide in Rwanda, I would tell them how resilient and progressive the country has proven to be: their roads and transportation network are lauded as some of the best in Africa, their parliament is the only one in the world where women hold the majority (56%), and their strict ban on plastic bags and mandatory monthly cleanup day qualify them as leaders in the fight against environmental destruction.
It has been my experience, however, that people aren’t interested in listening to success stories. Africa as a peaceful place is a pretty tough sell when you’re dealing with people whose ideas of the continent are informed solely by a very one-sided and negative media image. And I couldn’t really blame them, either. Try as I might to hone in on the positive, I found it hard to ignore the news stories highlighting the volatility of the continent that flashed in my periphery– warning signs that cautioned against taking an overly idealistic view. True, there are huge swaths of the continent that are peaceful, where farmers tend to their crops, children go to school, and life has achieved a level of normalcy we don’t readily associate with Africa. But it is also true that between 1990 and 2007, Africa accounted for 88% of the world’s conflict death tolls, 9 million refugees have been internally displaced and 12% of the continent’s children have been orphaned. Indeed, hell has seized parts of the continent, and there’s no sense in ignoring that millions of people have been, and continue to be, killed by bullets, machetes, hunger, bad water and disease.
So, rather than brushing off people’s insistence that Africa showcases humanity at its absolute worst and trying to convince them otherwise, I decided that a far more interesting and worthwhile effort would be to concede that they just might have a point. I can chalk it up to biased media coverage, dated stereotypes and the sheer physical distance that separates their landmass from ours, or I can admit to myself what I already know, and try to understand why it is that 5.4 million people were killed in the Congo, why 800,00 in the Rwandan genocide and why nearly 400,000 in the recent Darfur conflict. The question I wanted to answer was a simple, but difficult one: Why is Africa the way it is? What instigates these conflicts and enables them to continue? And why isn’t anyone paying any attention to them?
Over the past several months, my reading material has been almost entirely limited to books about Africa. Guidebooks, history books, memoirs– anything I could get my hands on that would give me some insight into this diverse and complicated continent that until fairly recently, I knew very little about. One of the main themes that surfaced in nearly all the works was that of war and conflict. Unlike the wars I learned about in school, where I knew the contributing causes, what was at stake, and which side came out on top, with Africa, the causes and outcomes of war were not always so clearly defined. Even after having read 500 plus pages on the Rwandan genocide, I still didn’t really understand what triggered the massacre.
It seems to me that when it comes to Africa, journalists have a tendency to dumb down complex realities for their western readers. I don’t know whether this is because it’s easier to get the story and get out, or if it’s because they’re actually worried about alienating readers by delving too deep into the issues. Regardless, news in the western world is about front pages and headlines, not lengthy explanations and background information. Rather than describing the historical and cultural complexities of a conflict, it is much easier to call it chaos and be done with it.
Not only are media reports of Africa incomplete, but they are also hard to come by. In 2000, Vigil Hawkins completed a study of some of the major western media outlets, surveying what percentage of their media focus fell where. The table above illustrates the proportions of coverage allotted by the BBC. Africa, he found, did not even figure in 10% of the coverage. According to Hawkins, “the death toll from the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is literally one thousand times greater than that in Israel-Palestine, yet it is the latter that is the object of far greater media coverage … [and where] the intricacies and nuances of the conflict, political situation and peace process are almost obsessively analyzed and presented … [African] conflicts are frequently brushed off and dismissed as being chaotic, or worthy of some vague pity or humanitarian concern, but rarely of any in-depth political analysis.” Too often, it seems that Africa just isn’t worth the trouble.
Oversimplified and distorted media coverage makes understanding African conflicts difficult, and the majority of westerners don’t have the time or motivation to question what they read and hear when it comes to something so seemingly removed from their day-to-day realities. This does not make the question “Why is Africa the way it is?” unanswerable, it just makes addressing it more difficult. Despite simplistic media messages, Africa’s problems do not stem exclusively from political corruption, human rights abuses and lawlessness– these are but symptoms of some of the underlying causes.
One of the most glaring factors influencing Africa today is the lasting impact of European colonialism. Often westerners take an attitude that suggests, “yes, we did some bad things, but it’s been a long time, and they’re worse off now than they were then.” While in some cases, this might ring true, it is hardly debatable that colonialism has had devastating consequences across Africa– consequences that are not overcome overnight.
The way that Africa was carved up, as colonial powers ruled and then abandoned Africa, had the effect of gathering many different of ethnicities and cultures under a nation that did not reflect, nor have the ability to accommodate, such diversity. A nation is a group of people you are born into or feel you belong to. The nations that were arbitrarily determined by the Europeans were neither of these things, and with the way colonialists exploited a largely self-manufactured difference, it’s hard to imagine that they thought they were actually helping Africans.
In many areas of the continent, colonial administrations did not have sufficient personnel or resources to adequately govern the territory, thus necessitating a reliance on locals to run them. Europeans selected who they wanted to have in power, dividing people into categories based on characteristics that had previously held little to no significance. One example of this can be seen in Rwanda, where prior to the arrival of the Belgian colonists, the country’s two main ethnic groups (the Hutus and the Tutsis) lived more or less in harmony. When the Belgians came, they gave the power to the Tutsi, believing that their lighter skin and more delicate features made them superior to their darker-skinned Hutu counterparts. This fuelled Tutsi resentment, contributing in part to the eventual genocide in 1994.
Not only did the Europeans exploit arbitrary differences, but they created them. One of the most profound and lasting impacts was the implementation of Tribalism. Based on very premature assumptions, colonialists supposed that just as they belonged to different nations, with distinct cultures and common languages, so too did Africans belong to different tribes. This, however, was not always the case. The notion of tribalism was largely a European construct designed to serve European interests. In fact, the Zulus of South Africa as a separate ethnic group only came into being in 1870; the Solis of Zambia only became Solis when they were told they were, in 1937.
Despite this, many people dismiss colonialism as a reason for Africa’s problems. “They’ve been handed independence and look what they’ve done with it,” they say. The fact is that colonialism grasped the continent for close to four centuries, and its effects cannot be overcome so quickly. In the words of Bob Geldof, “Consider the extent to which the Second World War of just six years has pervaded the consciousness of our developed world for two generations and imagine how four centuries of enslavement might have seized the entire social and cultural ethos of an undeveloped continent.” The damage caused by colonialism has become entrenched in African societies across the continent. The extent to which it permeates all facets of life makes it a difficult thing to forget or move forward from.
Here is a 10-minute film clip that shows how colonialism continues to affect current struggles, using Uganda as an example.
The film that this clip has been taken from (Uganda Rising) is excellent, heart-wrenching
and highly recommended. You can view it in its entirety on YouTube by clicking here.
It’s also worth noting that many African countries have only achieved independence from colonial powers in the past few decades. The newest independent nations include Eritrea (1993), Namibia (1990) and Zimbabwe (1980). Not to mention the most obvious colonial legacy of all, apartheid in South Africa ended just fifteen years ago. These nations are new, they have had little opportunity to establish themselves and develop a national identity. My own country, Canada, has been an independent nation for over 140 years, and we’re still grappling with how to accommodate our two linguistic groups– English and French– in a way that is accepted by all. Given the way that Africa was divided up, with little regard to existing ethnicities, languages and cultures (of which there are several thousand) it should be no surprise that developing stable nation-states is proving difficult.
Another legacy of colonialism has been that of the single party state. It was introduced by Europeans as the only method of effective method of governance and control in places that were characterized by a great diversity of interests. Dictatorships were implemented. Widespread poverty and oppression proliferated. And when the Europeans pulled out and granted their colonies independence, it’s true that things did get worse. Between 1960 and 2003, 107 African leaders were overthrown, two-thirds were murdered, jailed or forced into exile. Just three retired on their own accord, and not one was democratically voted out of office.
Colonialism also had a devastating impact on the Africa’s economy. For four centuries, Europeans siphoned Africa’s wealth of resources, from rubber to diamonds to oil to people. It has been argued that even independence served the interests of the former colonialists more than it served the interests of Africans. According to former Tanzanian president Julius Nyere, “It seems that independence of the former colonies has suited the interests of the industrial world for bigger profits at less cost. Independence made it cheaper for them to exploit us. We became neo-colonies.” In many ways, international trade agreements and economic policies have effectively picked up where colonial arrangements left off, whereby many nations have been forced to concentrate on export to stay afloat. Institutions like the World Bank and the IMF loan developing countries money, which encourages them to increase their export, often at the expense of service programs and education. This, combined with ongoing limited rights to land, has severely curtailed African development.
Colonialism is a big contributor to why Africa is the way it is. It planted the seeds for conflict, and manipulated industries in ways that have had long-lasting and detrimental effects on development. But there are other factors as well, such as the proliferation of weapons in Africa following the Cold War, when major powers like the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union saw a viable and profitable dumping ground for arms they no longer needed. The propagation of these small arms has no doubt fuelled many recent conflicts. The table below demonstrates the west’s complicity to conflicts in the developing world (shown in blue).
The legacy of colonialism, the West’s continued support for exploitive regimes, the proliferation of arms, and policies that maintain dependency and poverty have had the cumulative effect of turning many African countries into what some have dubbed “failed states,” characterized by chaos and suffering. In 2001, Tony Blair called the state of Africa, “a scar on the conscience of the world.” As deeply offensive as this statement is to Africans, many of whom have worked very hard and made great progress to overcome incredible obstacles, I think it speaks to why Africa is the way it is, and why its problems are in many ways our problems.
In researching and writing this piece I have developed a better understanding of Africa and the ideas (both founded and unfounded) that people have about it. I have come to accept that Africa does have many problems, and that these problems re-enforce one another. Surprisingly, learning about war and conflict has not made me apprehensive about traveling to Africa. More so than the stories of hope and resiliency, it has eased my fears. There may be madness, but there is logic to it. Africans are not irrational beings, resorting to primeval violence at the slightest provocation; they resort to conflict because they feel as though they have no other choice. They have been exploited for centuries and they want things to change. And in many places, they have. Great strides towards peace and reconciliation have been made in the past few decades, and I think more than anything we will be struck by just how safe and welcomed we feel. Africa is an exceptionally diverse continent, with unparalleled natural beauty and fascinating people– to be turned off by its turbulent history and a handful of scare stories, would mean missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime.